Flame and Shadow

By Joshua Carr All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Other

Chapter 62

The instant Hal dropped her shield, the entire room was violently filled with an eruption of flame, then hissing and boiling steam. Doshi cried out in pain as the superheated water vapor burned the skin on his face and hands. What just happened?

His vision obscured with tears, he stumbled about, attempting to find an answer. He could not see anything but white clouds. The madman deduced that his glasses must have been fogged up, and he ripped them from his face and tossed them aside. He still could see nothing through the steam, and realized that the entire room was filled with it. Then, a blindingly bright orange glow seemed to be coming from a distance within the fog. It grew brighter as it approached.

Doshi was gripped with absolute terror as the object slowly came forward. The white steam appeared to glow ever brighter as the light source drew near, until it melted away due to the heat. A figure was walking toward him. It had large wings of flaming fire that stretched for six feet on either side of it. Its hair seemed to glow with radiant light as well, but the most petrifying part was the eyes. They blazed a bright orange, and pierced into the man’s very soul.

A high-pitched, insane laugh escaped from his mouth.

“Heh heh…M-Master? Heh heh… You’re…Heh heh… you’re…heh heh…You’ve come for me... heh heh…”

The imposing form came ever closer, until it stood right over top of him. Doshi curled up into a fetal position like a scared child, and began to roll back and forth, giggling like a madman.

“Heh heh…he’s come…heh heh…he’ll kill me…heh heh…ha ha HA HA HA HA HA!!!”

Ordinarily, being enclosed in a miniscule place with Milo would have been debilitatingly awkward and uncomfortable. But now, my mind could only worry about Sera. Was she still alive? Where did all of that steam come from? Did she do that?

As soon as it was possible, I deactivated our protective bubble, and dashed out into the thick steam. It felt like a sauna with the heat turned up, but it wasn’t scalding. Wiping water from my eyes, I caught a glimpse of a bright orange light. Sera? Could it be her?

Milo was right behind me as I ran toward the source until its shape was no longer concealed by the fog. What I saw shocked me enough to stop me in my tracks. Sera, at least I think it was Sera, had expansive burning wings coming from her back. She was standing over Doshi, who was hugging his knees while lying on his side, whimpering helplessly.

“Sera…” Milo ventured.

The girl turned around to face us.

“Told ya.”

Then, her flaming wings began to fade, and she seemed to lose energy. When they disappeared, she collapsed. Milo darted forward and caught her before she fell to the ground.

“Sera…How did you do that?” He asked.

His sister half opened her eyes.

“I…don’t really know.”

“Well, how did you know that would work? You vaporized every drop of water in the room!”

“I…didn’t…”

We were all quiet for a moment. No one really knew what to say. Then, I thought of something that should probably be addressed.

“What should we do with him?” I asked, pointing at the sadistic water-caller.

He sputtered like an idiot as if in response to the attention.

Milo didn’t even look.

“Just leave him. I don’t know what his problem is, but it doesn’t look like he’ll be hurting anyone.”

I was genuinely surprised and impressed. A few days ago, Milo wouldn’t have wasted a second before killing him. He’s learning to let go of his hatred. Shortly thereafter, Sera began feeling strong enough to stand on her own.

“Whew. OK, we’re good. That was weird. And really really hot.”

Milo nodded, then looked around.

“We’ve gotta find the page of the prophecy.”

“Oh yeah! Sherman probably had it in his office over there.”

The three of us hurried across the Bishop’s chapel toward his capacious office. It did not take a long search to uncover the piece of worn parchment.

“Score!” Sera jubilated.

“Another page. Another piece of the puzzle.” Milo was less optimistic. “When are we actually going to find some answers?”

“We’ll get there,” I reminded him. “As long as we don’t give up, and keep fighting.”

There was a moment of silence, until it simultaneously dawned on all three of us.

“Fighting! We’ve gotta get back out there!!”

We tore out of the chapel area back to the battlefield. I had no idea we had been distant from the skirmish, nor any idea of what the outcome would be. From a distance, it was clear that the battle still raged on, though there were less people participating. I couldn’t tell which side was winning; there were still warriors from both armies engaged. Amidst the chaotic struggle, I saw Josie fighting a beam-caller opponent. It was the girl Sera was facing earlier, but she had lost her stocking cap, revealing a shaved patch of hair above her left ear. As we ran closer and closer, I was able to hear some conversation. Conversation was the wrong word. More like savage berating.

“Things are so much different after your precious Seraphina is back, huh? Now you’re fighting like a rebel, but you don’t even know why! Well, if you can call this fighting! You’ve always been clumsy and worthless! I’m glad you’re not on our side!”

Their fight consisted mostly of the beam-caller firing pinkish energy at Josie, while she barely dodged and created ice walls to protect herself. The antagonistic girl was obviously a very skilled warrior, because she was able to very quickly and efficiently move from place to place and emit powerful blasts. However, she was beginning to look a bit haggard herself.

Just then, the enemy released an attack at close range, and held it at full strength. Josie formed a barrier of ice, and attempted to keep it strong with all of her concentration.

“AW LOOK!” The beam-caller screamed over the sound of their colliding powers. “YOU’RE CUTTING YOURSELF AGAIN! I’D CUT ME IF I WERE YOU, TOO!! DOES THAT MAKE EVERYTHING BETTER?! IS EVERYTHING SO MUCH BETTER?! YOU’RE HORRIBLE! NOBODY WANTS YOU!! NOBODY!!”

Both girls were sweating with exertion, the beam trying to break through, and the ice trying to hold fast. I willed us all to travel faster so we could come to her aid, but it was too late.

In a sickening instant, the beam pierced through the frozen defense, blasting full-strength into Josie’s chest. The world seemed to go into slow motion as everyone responded to what happened. I heard Sera scream:

“JOSIEEEEE!!!”

The victim’s face was filled with a mixture of astonishment and pain as the girl was ripped by the powerful force and thrown backward. Even the attacker looked absolutely horrified at what she had just done. I couldn’t watch, but couldn’t bring myself to look away.

In an instant that seemed like an eternity, it was all over. The ice structures vanished into thin air. Josie lay still on the hard ground several feet back. Her foe had fallen to her knees where she stood. Almost as though there were a malignant sentient power was satisfied that the battle had accomplished all the travesty it needed to, all of the commotion began to die down. It appeared as though our side had won, but no one looked jubilant. Before long, I realized that the reason they stopped is because our return meant that we had defeated their leader.

Sera sprinted directly toward her friend like the worried big sister she was. When she reached the smaller girl, she pulled her close in a desperate embrace.

“Josie!? Josie!? Oh God no, not again!! Not again!”

Her laments were broken by heartbroken sobs as she held her tight. I immediately knew she was gone. Sera’s cries were born of a heart that had seen loss and pain before, but experienced the sorrow with the same emotion nonetheless.

Sera refused to leave Josie’s body, so Mahsa and Milo began to give commands. They ordered everyone who was able-bodied to help the wounded, from both sides. We all did our best to care for each other’s wounds. There were four fatalities, including Josie, but it looked like everyone else would be able to survive. As we worked, I contemplated deeply the implications of everything that had happened.

Was all of this bloodshed due to the prophecy? If there were no prophecy, Doshi wouldn’t have tortured and killed so many people. This war between brothers and sisters never would have happened, and Josie may still be alive. Then again, it could all be Teklos’ doing. They were the ones who asked Doshi to find a way to reveal the words of the Book, and they were the perpetrators who indirectly caused the battle. It didn’t matter. Knowing what happened would do nothing to bring loved ones back. All we could do was try our best to fulfill the prophecy, despite the odds, and secure peace so that violence like this would never happen in the future.

Some time later, the girl who had killed Josie, who’s name I had learned to be Bethany, hesitantly approached Milo.

“Um, hey. I didn’t know who to talk to, but, you’re, uh…right here.” She seemed very nervous and ashamed. “I just wanted to say…I’m so sorry for…killing that girl, Josie. I didn’t mean to, I was just carried away in the heat of the battle, and I couldn’t stop my power and-“

Milo held up his hand for silence.

“I understand. It’s OK, but it isn’t OK. I’ve been carried away in battle before too. My rage got the best of me, and I killed someone who couldn’t fight back. It isn’t my place to hold a grudge against you. No matter what you’ve done, God’s grace is big enough to cover it. So, as far as I’m concerned, you’re forgiven.”

Bethany’s eyes were wide.

“Y-you’re shitting me…God would forgive…me? After all the evil stuff I’ve done?”

“Yep. Jesus paid it all on the cross, so your eternal soul can live forever in paradise, as long as you accept his sacrifice.”

“B-but…I’m…”

“A sinner? I know. But if everyone who’s done something bad couldn’t make it into heaven, it would be a pretty lonely place, because everyone’s sinned. However, you can’t be saved if you haven’t sinned, and there’s no one thing you could do that’s any worse than any other. So, as long as you believe, you’ll be forgiven for all eternity.”

“I…I think…I can believe that. Whaddo I have to lose?”

“However, even though your sins are forgiven, you still have to accept the consequences of your actions here on earth.”

“OK. A little pain here is way better than eternal hell! What kinda consequences?”

With that, Milo ducked out of the way, just in time for Sera to deliver a flaming Falcon Punch directly into her old rival’s face.

“LIKE THAT!” Sera called as the girl flew backward and crashed in a heap.

“Thank…you…” Bethany mumbled, smiling.

Sera crossed her arms and closed her eyes. I could see tears streaming down her face, but she attempted not to show them; she wanted to be too strong for that.

After everyone had been tended to, Milo led us aside.

“Are you ready to reveal the next page of the book, Hal?” He inquired.

I nodded. The procedure had become routine by this point, and as I projected my energy into the page, I was swept into another memory.

It had been several days since I’d lost Tabal. It still didn’t feel real. Only a few short weeks ago, everything had been fine, and I was living at home with my family. Now, Tabal was gone, and I was on the run from my own father, who admittedly never liked me anyway. He had always blamed me for my mother’s death, and I never really felt like I belonged. Only my sister loved me for who I was, but I had gotten her killed too. Now I was absolutely solitary.

Somehow though, I didn’t feel alone. It wasn’t something weird like my sister’s spirit was accompanying me or anything, I simply didn’t have that feeling of hopelessness and lostness one gets when there is nobody by their side. There was no one around for miles, but there was still some kind of comforting presence that I couldn’t explain.

As I continued south like Tabal had told me, I eventually came to a small town. I didn’t know the name, but I had no reason not to go into it. At least, that’s what I thought. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that most people had a distaste for full-body tattoos. Very few people actually said anything about my recently obtained markings, but nearly everyone gave me dirty glances or otherwise showed their hatred. I was too shy to explain to anyone that they weren’t actually tattoos, but it likely wouldn’t have made any difference anyway.

I tried to cover up as much of my body as I could, and continued on the outskirts of the city. It wouldn’t take me long before I could get out, and avoid people for a few hundred miles. While walking along the edge of the city, I heard loud barking and the sounds of a chase. I couldn’t help but go to see what was going on. In a short time, I had found that two large, mean-looking dogs had cornered a small silver tabby kitten in the corner of an alleyway.

I wanted to help, but what could I possibly hope to do? Then I thought of Tabal, protecting me and even the attacker, despite the risk to her own health. I also remembered that weird clear force field that I had accidentally made when my father’s men were shooting at me.

Maybe...Just maybe…

I hurried as quickly as I could into the alley. The kitten was attempting to intimidate the fearsome dogs with tiny hisses and claws, but it was having no real effect. The lead dog growled viciously, then pounced…

…and crashed headfirst into a protective bubble. The other dog tried it as well, but to no avail. After bonking their heads a couple more times, they turned and walked away bad-temperedly. I released my concentration on the force field, and looked down at the tiny cat.

“Hey…are you alright?”

Without even so much as a thank you meow, the ungrateful mammal started running away. Even though it didn’t seem to care about me, I didn’t want it to run into those dogs again. Therefore, throwing aside any cares about people seeing me, I followed the kitten. Fortunately, it didn’t go anywhere near the center of town. In fact, it led back along the outskirts again to the northwest part of town, before stopping at a large, very old house. The one-story structure looked to be at least 70 years old, with faded white siding, gray accents, and a pointed roof.

The little gray cat trotted right up to the house like it owned it, and pushed its way through the cat door. I probably should have left it at that. The kitten obviously had a place where it called home, and I could go on my way. As though the very ground were tilted toward this house, though, I felt the urge to look inside. Carefully, I ascended the steps to the dilapidated front porch, and silently opened the door. Or, it started out silently, before squeaking like a rusty Ferris wheel for what felt like half an hour.

“Hello?” I called into the house, sticking my head in through the door. “Is anybody home?”

I didn’t hear any human voices; only the sound of a radio playing 50s rock ‘n’ roll classics. Brown-Eyed Girl to be specific. The interior was very dim, due to all of the curtains being drawn and the lights being turned off. I cautiously continued into the abode, raising my voice again.

“Hello? Hello? Does anyone live here?”

“Oh! Hi!” came a response this time.

I jumped. Although I was calling out for a response, actually receiving one took me completely off guard.

“Is that you, Miss Whiskers?”

I relaxed. It was just an old woman with dark sunglasses, sitting in a large rocking chair.

“No, ma’am. My name is Hal. I found your cat, and just wanted to make sure it got home safely-“

“Oh Miss Whiskers! No need for tall tales! You’re such a silly cat sometimes!” She chided me.

“But…I’m not a cat…”

“Of course you are! And you’re such a pretty little cat too! Don’t think I don’t know a cat when I see one! You are a little more loud-mouthed than most cats though…”

I wasn’t sure what to make of this situation, until I figured out that the old lady was blind. The poor old thing, she was all alone, except for her cats. She likely never had any company, and had gone slightly crazy over the years. What a sad life. Well, on second glance, she did look perfectly happy with her small, dependent animals all around her. Maybe this was just how she wanted to live. I gave a little smile, and began to slip out of the home, when I heard her voice again.

“Oh, Miss Whiskers! Have you met Mr. Tabbycat Furrybottom? He’s the newest addition to the family!”

I turned back around, just to humor the old lady and take a look at her cute cat. What I saw instead was the elderly woman holding up a ten pound Gila Monster. My brain immediately activated its fight-or-flight reflex, and I hurried back into the living room to snatch the venomous lizard out of her hands.

“Um, I don’t believe that’s a cat, ma’am.”

“Why, of course he is! He told me so! And he’s such a good cat, too.”

It was then that I looked around to truly examine the condition of the living space. The cat food dishes were filled with nuts and bolts. Their 27 litter boxes were all overflowing. The whole place smelled of decaying flesh, and all of the counters and shelves were covered with debris. Not only that, but in addition to cats and Gila Monsters, I also observed a dingo, a tarantula, several cobras and squirrels, and one perching peregrine falcon.

This poor, poor woman. She probably thought they were all cats. How could anyone live like this? It didn’t take me long to realize that I would be unable to leave for a while. How could I abandon such a sweet person who was living in this kind of a situation? I had a responsibility to complete…which I’d do just as soon as I got this place back in order…

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